Governor Cornell Rasanga is witty and overwhelmingly passionate about his work.
The Siaya governor was removed from office after his election was nullified, but he went ahead to retain the seat. Mr Rasanga believes the by-election was a blessing in disguise.
And he further believes the media did not get it right on devolution from the start.
“The media only focused on the negatives of devolution and operations of governors. The reportage on devolution was not inclined to support it. But I am happy that the attitude has changed.”
Q: How does it feel when a court nullifies an election?
A: Very painful. Our elections are also very expensive. But the by-election turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When I got elected for the first time, I was not known. My party had a feeling that Dr Oburu Oginga vies for governorship with me as his running mate. I accepted because of the political circumstances at that time. In fact, I campaigned for Mr Oginga.
But things changed and I had to be governor. Some people had not believed that I will be governor. The complaint at that time was that I was not myself. But that mischief was cured during the by-election. It reinforced my stature and helped me propel and sell my agenda. It helped me show that I was not in anybody’s shadow.
Q: So what is your vision for Siaya?
A: To improve the welfare of Siaya people. My first agenda is to ensure they have food. A hungry person does not have an identity. Food security gives them assurance of who they are. Other things will follow. I am also concerned about health, education and employment for the youth and women.
Q: How do you plan to put food on the table?
A: We have a lot of arable land, which is suitable for mechanised farming. We have bought 20 tractors for farmers and will repair some from the former local authorities. Our aim is to hit 45. We have allocated Sh50 million to support small-scale irrigation in all our wards. We want to be able to harvest maize three times a year.
I am uncomfortable that most of food such as onions and tomatoes come from Kimilili . We buy milk from Rift Valley. But mechanisation alone will not increase production. We must use certified seeds and quality fertiliser. I also intend to increase food production using cooperatives such as Mwalimu Sacco. We can offer them ‘idle’ land and ask them to cultivate and then it can be managed by professionals. We should be able to produce more than 60 bags of maize from a few acres.
Q: Most farmers remain poor despite engaging in the activity for years. What is not being done right?
A: Our critical aim is to fill the deficit in food production. As I have just told you, we buy milk, cassava, millet and maize from outside. Our challenge is first to address this deficit and create a surplus for sale. And the way to go is mechanised agriculture subsidised by the county government.
Q: What opportunities do you have in tourism?
A: We have the home of US President Barack Obama’s father in Kogelo. We have not utilised the Obama moment and heritage to benefit this region. We also have the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Mausoleum, which is rich in Kenya’s political history.
Our lake, Kanyaboli attracts rare species of birds and the Sitatunga. We must improve the management of the lake. A team has been set up to profile our tourism sites and assess how best they can be used to generate revenue for the county.
We also have the home of Odera Kango and Arwings Kodhek, which are full of artifacts. I reckon that Kodhek was the first lawyer in Kenya. His bedroom has a lot of books, which can be transformed into a library. I am also a son of a great man called Amoth Amira, who had 27 wives. Researchers might be interested to know how he ran such a big family.
Q: You have been allocated Sh4.3 billion. How do you intend to use the money?
A: We have a challenge. Out of the amount, Sh1.9 billion will go to personal emoluments, particularly payment of county workers such as the Members of the County Assembly, the executives, chief officers and other staff whose responsibilities have been devolved. Only 30 per cent will go to development, around Sh700 million.
Q: How do you deal with the burden of the huge number of staff, which you inherited from the former local government authorities?
A: We will carry out staff rationalisation to establish who we need. There is a big problem. Retrenching them will be politically suicidal yet some of them don’t have the skills we have. That is the difficult situation we find ourselves in.
Q: Why have you refused to pay people employed under the economic stimulus programme?
A: The Treasury rolled out the Economic Stimulus Programme and engaged a lot of staff. Initially, they were being paid by the national government.
We were told to pay them, but we asked to know how they were engaged. Some of them were on contract. We reluctantly paid them with a rider that their positions will be advertised and they will be given opportunity to re-apply. That is why they are uncomfortable.
Q: There are multiple agencies handling roads. How have you dealt with it?
A: The Constitution says there are county and national trunk roads but there is a lot of duplicity in management of the resources. We have roads being done by the Kenya Urban Roads Authorities, others by Rural Roads Authority, under the Constituency Development Fund, national government and the Kenya National Highway Roads Authority.
We have realised that there will be duplicity in award of contracts and have resolved to have a meeting with all these agencies to address the challenge.
Q: But do you have the technical capacity to handle the roles devolved to you, including roads?
A: The president said that all required responsibilities be devolved but they are saying we have no capacity to execute the devolved roles. We want the technical people to be devolved as well as resources. I am surprised that equipment for repair of roads lies idle at the provincial headquarters.
Q: What progress have you made in health?
A: My idea is that we improve facilities, use friends from diaspora to help us with drugs as we build new dispensaries. We have already acquired ambulance services. Siaya has the some of the highest maternal mortality levels and HIV prevalence in the country. We are fighting to reverse them.
Q: Should the whole education sector be devolved?
A: It is unfortunate that the whole of education was not devolved. They only devolved nursery school education. It is mind-boggling that I can’t help a secondary schools whose walls are collapsing because that role is not assigned to me.
The whole system does not report to the governor. Yet three quarters of my work is occupied by issues related to education. The public is more concerned about education. My government has supplied solar lamps to schools and set aside Sh80 million for the provision of nursery school education. We are building three nursery school classrooms in each institutions but we do not have teachers.
Q: What is your comment on the position by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (Knut) that employment of nursery school teachers by county governments is illegal?
A: You notice that it is Knut which is talking, not the Teachers Service Commission (TSC). Necessity obeys no law. TSC has not employed enough teachers. We want to remedy the situation.
Q: Siaya is the hotbed of Kenyan politics and an ODM stronghold. How well do you work with the Uhuru-Ruto government?
A: The Constitution says that there are 47 county governments and the national government, which must operate independently but we must cooperate at some level on areas such as security. However, I think that security should also be devolved. The police commissioner sits in Nairobi. We are better placed to handle security matters because we are on the ground. The other day, police wanted to conduct an operation but they didn’t have fuel. I gave them the fuel.
Q: How do you plan to obtain greater value from Lake Victoria?
A: It is an important natural resource, which should be dear to us. We must improve on our lake transport. Create a link between Homa Bay, Siaya and Entebbe, Uganda. But for us to effectively do this, all the counties sharing Lake Victoria must come together and chart the best possible way to benefit from the lake. That is what we have done.
Whenever we approach an investor to invest in the lake, we are asked about the market. We have decided that the counties sharing the lake should come together to expand our market. There are also suggestions that we should start a common bank to support our investment projects.
Q: What is your comment on the thinking that your people have negative energy, and poor attitude towards enterprise?
A: We must change the mindset of our people about how things should be done. We desire to come up with initiatives that will attract the Siaya diaspora. The response is positive.
Our people are very hard working. Farmers are busy tilling their lands. They are interested in development and we are determined to create an enabling environment for them.
Q: Talking of investment, you seem to be uncomfortable with the Dominion Group, which has been operating here for years. What is the bone of contention?
A: Dominion occupies 17,000 acres of land, a chunk of which they do not use. I have set up a task force to establish whether Dominion is still useful to us. It is possible for us to engage in how the unused land can be best utilised to benefit the local population.
Q: What five things would you want to accomplish before your term ends?
A: First, I must remind you that I have been in office for only six months because of the disruption leading to a by-election.
I will be happy if I come up with strategies that will ensure our people have sufficient food, improved education standards, access to health care and jobs for the youth. I also wish to see very organised and well-planed towns.